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Ten years after NATO intervention, Libya remains unstable

March 18, 2021

In 2011, the international community supported rebel forces against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But hopes of democracy and stability have yet to be fulfilled.

Libyans hold up signs with messages to NATO written on them
Image: DW

Libya's revolt 10 years ago was supposed to usher in change. In the wake of the Arab Spring, in February 2011, Libyans too took to the streets to protest against the country's authoritarian ruler Muammar Gaddafi, who had been in power since 1969. The protest escalated into a military conflict, with part of the army joining opposition rebel groups and the other part remaining loyal to the regime.

On March 17, the United Nations passed a resolution allowing for measures to establish a no-fly zone, to protect the civilian population. Two days later, the US, Britain and France launched airstrikes. On March 31, NATO took sole command of international air operations over Libya.

NATO support proved vital to the rebel fighters. In October, they entered Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte and a last heavy battle took place, ending with the capture and killing of Gaddafi on October 20. A picture of the dictator's bloodied face went around the world.

Hopes for a new beginning 

For many politicians in the West, his death represented an opportunity for a new beginning: "We hope that after decades of dictatorship the people of Libya can now begin a new, peaceful and democratic chapter for their country,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "We stand by the new Libya on its path to a better, peaceful and democratic future.”

 Buildings ravaged by fighting in Sirte
Sirte was ravaged by fightingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/EPA/M. Messara

This was not to be. The violence did not stop for long and a civil war raged on for years. In hindsight the NATO intervention was not a complete success, even if it did bring an immediate end to the human rights violations of the Gaddafi regime and saved lives in the short term by curtailing the conflict, Thomas Claes, project director for Libya at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Tunisia told DW.

"However, it did not succeed in bringing long-term stability and democracy to Libya,” he pointed out. "At the same time, it must be said that the current destabilization can be traced back to the policies and crimes of the Gaddafi era, to a much larger extent than to the NATO intervention.”

Massive impact on migration

The war also had a massive impact on the lives of the between 600,000 and 700,000 migrants and refugees, largely from Sub-Saharan Africa, in Libya. Many of them were hoping to stay there. Had there been peace, the country would have offered good employment opportunities thanks to its natural resources. The war forced many of them to attempt the dangerous journey to Europe. Many of those who failed to cross the Mediterranean were captured by the Libyan coastguard and put into camps.

"According to many reports, human rights violations are frequent there," said Claes. Camps run by militias are apparently even worse. "It is almost impossible for rights organizations to monitor what is happening there," he explains. "The situation of the people interned there is particularly difficult. Furthermore, the situation of refugees has got worse because of the pandemic, rising prices and the closure of borders in Europe."

Fragile ceasefire

In recent months, under the auspices of the United Nations, it has been possible to persuade local actors to come to a ceasefire agreement, possibly also because it has been understood that Libya is the site of an international conflict between external powers such as Turkey and Russia. Without political agreement, Libya could collapse completely, much like Syria. There has also been more pressure from the Libyan population itself.

At the beginning of February, regional actors reached a breakthrough at a UN conference. Representing the Libyan population, the delegates elected an interim government of national unity whose most important task is to organize elections which have been set for December 2021, as well as to draft a new constitution and introduce new voting rights. The interim government is supposed to step down after the elections. Claes said that the roadmap was largely positive, but there was also a series of problems. Recently, a confidential UN report accused the new prime minister Abdelhamid Al-Dabaiba of corruption and of having bought the votes of certain delegates. If this turned out to be true it would certainly confirm the impression that he plans to stay in power beyond December, said Claes.

Members of Libya's House of Representatives
Members of Libya's House of Representatives recently granted confidence to the new interim governmentImage: Mohammed Ertima/AA/picture alliance

He explained that the prime minister had created a particularly large cabinet, with 30 ministers and secretaries of state, to pacify as many factions as possible. "Of course, this all has to do with money. Each group gets a ministry in order to have access to state funds which they can then distribute to their own clientele. This development seems to be a realistic vision for the coming months if not years,” he predicted.

Claes also speculated that the lawmakers in office since 2014 might also exert pressure to ensure that they kept their mandates beyond December in order to ensure access to state funds. He said that there was a fine line between consensus and corruption: "Libya could develop into a kind of kleptocracy, in which corruption is effectively part of the system.”

This might be the price to pay for stability and peace. But the uprising against Gaddafi and the NATO intervention 10 years ago had more ambitious political goals.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East